Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
I was in New York City twice in the last three weeks. I don’t use the subway, because I’m quite sure that I’d emerge like a mole uncertain where I am. Instead, I use taxis and Ubers to get around. In one taxi, I sat with my eyes focused on the scenery swiftly moving past me. In the front seat, the driver was on speakerphone with someone. They spoke in a foreign language that sounded totally unfamiliar and oddly louder than usual. In the middle of the exchange between them, the caller abruptly yelled, “F#%$ YOU!” not once, but twice. Immediately, the driver jerked his head to the right to see if I had heard the offensive words. His eyes were wide open with alarm. Calmly, I said, “THAT I understood.” He smiled with relief and ended the phone call. He apologized and again later when I left the taxi.
The driver’s concern to look and see what I would say or do about the caller’s profanity created a rip in the moment between us. We both felt it. I had the option to feign offense at such language in a taxi that I hired to take me where I was going, but it would have been a vain attempt to right a wrong that he didn’t commit. The foreign language they spoke between them was their cover to discuss anything they liked. But, in whatever language one might speak there’s a shared vocabulary that finds a way to the surface where outrage and vitriol seek expression beyond the norm. The familiar profanity destroyed the barrier that separated us.
I also had the option to let it go, which I did. Had the driver not acknowledged the breach and had the conversation continued with further profanity, then I would have begun by knocking on the glass partition that had failed to protect us from each other. Wisely, I think, I chose to sew up the rip that his friend’s profanity created, and which he and I recognized wasn’t conducive to his business or mine.
Ripping and sewing came to my mind, because I recalled what Ecclesiastes wrote (3:1,7), “[There’s] a time for every experience under heaven…a time for ripping and a time for sewing.” We live in an age where rips occur daily. It isn’t just in language, but also in what language leads one to do. Explosive profanity isn’t often the apex of one’s anger; it’s often the precursor to rage and violence. Had the caller, who swore at his friend, been the driver’s front-seat companion, I would have been frightened, and rightfully so. Thankfully, he was just on the phone. In the taxi, with a glass partition between us, I already felt physically safe. But, the driver’s own reaction signaled to me that he was embarrassed and sensitive to my feelings, too. It was time to sew up the rip we both experienced. He joined me in repairing the tear with appropriate apologies. My calm reaction and grin assured him that we could reach my destination, together. At the end of the trip, I tipped him, anyway, and wished him well.
Later, on the plane home, I thought about how easy it is to rip things up. In the taxi, it took only one person to rip a moment into two. Then I thought about the exchange, not between the caller and the driver, but between the driver and me. It took both of us to put it back together. I can’t help but see signs of the same thing happening all around us. At home, at work, in the community around us, and especially on social media, we can work hand-in-hand to sew what others tear, and put together what others destroy. The fabric of our world has always been a patchwork of history and experience; and, its threads are always tested by us. Surely, we’ve learned enough from the past to avoid the mistakes that created the rips and scars we still see. If we choose to do things differently (wiser), we can avoid the same mistakes again, and ease up on the fragile threads that still hold us together. Ecclesiastes’ words are timeless and timely. One tears. Two sew. One destroys. Two build. We can do the same.